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Counting cafeterias

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Back in the mid-1980s, fresh out of college, I went to work in the Washington, D.C. offices of one of the Big Eight accounting firms. Working for one of these firms meant joining the major leagues of the accounting world because they paid the most money and had the most prestige. Early on, I learned that defense contractors and insurance companies were the really plum assignments. I worked at one defense contractor, let's call it Defendo Corporation, where we didn't examine any transactions below $10 million.

I now have two children in public school. Their school is a good one, the first in the Orange County system to be recognized as a North Carolina School of Excellence. But it's old and in need of repair.

When I read about the multi-billion-dollar increase in the defense budget the Bush administration is calling for, I experience an involuntary flashback to my auditing days. But instead of high-tech weapons, I'm now counting cafeterias and bathrooms.

The food offered by Defendo's cafeteria was not only better than Mom's, it was cheaper because it was government-subsidized. I can imagine what the cafeteria crew at Hillsborough Elementary School could do with those resources. I bet we'd see a reduction in hyperactivity if children could eat that well for lunch.

The bathrooms at Defendo were immaculate and empty, stall after stall of perfect silence--almost always unoccupied, no leaky toilets or wet floors, paper-towel holders always full. There were so many commodes at corporate headquarters that every child in the first grade class at Hillsborough Elementary could go to the bathroom at the same time--and there'd still be seats left. Instead, the 120 students in fourth and fifth grade classes are sharing one co-ed bathroom with one toilet and one sink.

Lost in the reverie, I start thinking about how priorities could be different. Why not let public schools temporarily swap offices with defense contractors? The defense companies, with their new funds-a-flowing, could move into old school buildings and renovate them, accomplishing it all beneath the radar of auditors because the "transactions" would be below the dollar levels usually examined for huge corporations. Maybe they could even throw in a couple of extra commodes, and hey, I won't breathe a word if fresh food replaces fried chicken nuggets for my children's lunch.

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